Dec 8, 2014

Monastic Hospitality, Part 2

I'm unsure how interesting a day-by-day recounting of places I've slept and distances‎ I've covered is to the folks who read these posts. I've created a separate page on my blog for the stats, so perhaps for this update I'll summarize and mention some of the memorable people, places, and sights.

Before getting to that, a quick note on where I am. The name of the town I arrived in at noon today is Colle di Val d'Elsa, and it consists of a mediaeval walled town on a series of hills and ridges at about 340 m above sea level, a mediaeval town 100 m below at the base of said extremely steep hill, and then modern suburbs on the heights leading up to the walls and more modern suburbs sprawling away from the hill.

Did I mention the hills? Now that the route of the Via Francigena has moved away from the coast, I've been spending my days climbing and then descending a series of hills, none more than 400 m above sea level. The views have been stunning, and the steady climbing has not been a challenge. I will certainly move along at a much slower pace as the incline grows steeper, but I don't have to stop part of the way up, unless it's simply because I want to admire the view.

What did prove to be challenging, yesterday in particular, is the mud I have encountered. It was only for a 5 km stretch in the middle of the 38 kms I covered yesterday, but those five kilometres were torturous. The path was no more than a metre wide, and the mud was both extremely slick and also curiously‎ sticky. It was probably a clay base, and I've only seen that soil (okay, mud) on three hills in succession, but that was more than enough!

I've had excellent weather for walking the past few days, although it has rained a little overnight for three or four days. The roads and gravel paths are dry by the time I stride on by, but the steep and narrow ‎hillside tracks are quite a different matter. There were a few sections of the trail yesterday where I could see that even four-footed creatures had been slipping around - and both deer and dogs are generally sure footed.

It was while trying to keep my balance on one of these treacherous patches that I wrenched my right knee. In my late teen years, I subjected my knees to a lot of lateral stress‎ while dancing through the night at various underground clubs in Toronto. Except for one flare-up nine or ten years ago while playing soccer with the church team, I've managed to avoid trouble up until now.

Even yesterday once I'd moved on to more regular surfaces, everything felt good.  I'd hit my stride and was sailing along beautifully. One indication that I'm walking well is that my walking stick just kisses the ground, keeping a 3/2 rhythm with my stride. If I'm tired or struggling, I'll lean on it, but last night climbing through the hills towards San Gimignano ‎I felt like I could go on for several hours more into the night. The moon is now just past full, there were barely any clouds in the sky, the path ahead of me was smooth and even (although constantly ascending), and there was enough of a chill in the air that the exertion from walking with my pack was keeping me warm without bathing me in sweat. ‎When I finally arrived at the Augustinian monastery in San Gimignano, one of the brothers asked me if I was tired. To my surprise, I realized I wasn't.

Today was a different matter. It usually takes a few minutes for my feet to fall into the rhythmic walk that lets me cover lots of ground with little perceptible effort, but today it just wasn't happening. Based on yesterday's walk, I thought that I might build on the momentum and press on 40 kms to Siena, and then reward myself with half a day of sightseeing before moving along. Failing that, I'd settled on Monterrigione as a good stopping off point, some 15 kms this side of Siena.

Instead of flying, today I had to concentrate on almost every step I took. I didn't feel tired, and for the first hour, there was no pain, either. I just couldn't get my feet moving properly. And then my knee started getting wonky. And that's why I'm spending the night in a nice modern ‎3 star hotel in the lower part of Colle di Val d'Elsa.

Well actually, after waffling over the decision (Should I Stay or Should I Go?), I finally headed over to the Franciscan seminary / monastery / church complex. They weren't answering the phone, of course, but they were listed in my guidebook as ‎offering parochial accommodation, so I decided to go knock on their door. The fact that I'm currently bedded down at a hotel is proof enough that I needn't have bothered. What was particularly galling is that while I was standing at the front door waiting for someone to answer the phone, a priest walked out, looked directly at me (avoiding eye contact), and went about his business without acknowledging my existence. I treat beggars on the street with more respect than that!

After this snub, I decided that I wanted no part of this town. There was no dust on my shoes to shake off, but I scraped off some of the mud that was caked on my trouser legs from the previous day. (cf. Luke 9:5) After pausing to air my feet in the sun and readjust my shoes, I shouldered my pack and started walking. It's only 13 kms to the next place with any sort of lodgings, but after fifty metres I knew my knee would not thank me for it. And then I saw the tourist office ahead of me - and it was actually open! I was given directions to the hotel, after the tourism official first tried calling several other slightly less expensive options on my behalf.‎ And THAT is why I'm spending the night in a nice modern ‎3 star hotel in the lower part of Colle di Val d'Elsa.

All of this was in direct contrast to my experience with the Augustinians the night before in San Gimignano. They had actually answered their phone when I called a day in advance, and when I arrived I was welcomed warmly, shown to my room, and fed. There was a basket on the dresser of the room and a sign in both Italian and English‎, asking pilgrims to please leave a donation to help with the ongoing operations. I had a chance to chat with both Fr. Brian, an American, and Fr. Kristoff, a German. What's wrong with Italian religious life that it takes foreigners to welcome strangers?

Actually, that's not entirely fair. The Franciscans I met in San Miniato Alto ‎Saturday evening allowed me to stay with them. I'd arrived in town two hours after sunset, walking slowly up the steep hill. As I made my approach, two townspeople stepped out of their door. On spotting me, they asked if I was headed to the convent. (In Italian, they use "convento" to refer to both male and female monasteries.) When I replied in the affirmative, they offered to show me the way, since they were headed there for evening Mass. I thanked them, and as we walked we chatted as much as my limited Italian would allow.

When we entered the main church, I noticed several people pause and speak with a priest in vestments who was sitting to one side. I approached with the letter from my priest in hand, and asked if I could spend the night. He whipped out a cell phone and made a call, and then said that would be fine. After Mass he would show me to my room. As there was a meeting of the Scout leaders of Tuscany staying there, I was told I could eat with them. Better and better! And then after dinner came the shakedown. I was asked to pay €35, cash only. Now.

I managed not to look shocked (I think), and I paid what they were demanding, but until tonight's stay in a three star hotel, I had never paid more for a single night anywhere in Italy.‎ Modern Franciscans have certainly deviated from the ideals of their founder. And yes, the monastery in San Miniato Alto claims to have been founded by Francis of Assissi on a visit to the town in 1211.

Note to self: do not even think of asking a Capuchin or a Franciscan for assistance in Italy. Look for an Augustinian! I haven't encountered any other orders yet, and I hope to be leaving for Albania in a fortnight. Papa Francesco, you need to get your houses in order!

And now, some of the highlights of the past few days, in point form because it's already 1:00 AM.

- in Lucca, seeing the house where Giacomo Puccini was born

- also in Lucca, meeting Julia and her children Emilia and Alessandro. Julia had seen my pack outside the café where I was taking a break, so she came in and introduced herself. Very interested and excited about the Via Francigena. After picking her kids up from school, she brought them back to meet me.

- arriving in San Miniato Alto at the height of their annual tartufo festival (also the feast of St Nicholas). I still haven't tried tartufo, and that would've been a great opportunity. Apparently the white truffles of this small region are superior to other kinds of truffles.

- watching the light show as I approached San Gimignano in the dark. It was the final day of their Lumiere festival. While eating dinner at the Augustinian monastery, I met David, an artist from Java (the region, not the programming language) who designed the projections that were constantly shifting on the wall of a mediaeval building in the square beside the church. ‎ The snapshot accompanying this post is him and his work. [Sorry it didn't turn out better, David!]

- the day before and after Avenza, seeing flatbed trucks trundle by on the road bearing one or possibly two enormous cubes of rock. It took a few such sightings for me to realize these were the bones of the earth, freshly cut out of the mountains and bound for the marble works where they lay out on display in vast ossuaries: cream, black, grey, green, yellow, pink blocks waiting to be carved into slabs and worked into countertops, floor tiles, statues, tombstones. Most places I've visited use concrete for the sidewalk curbs, but in the cities around Carrara, they use marble.

- in Altopascio, meeting Valentina, the nice young librarian who is studying English and had the keys to the municipal albergue. She was the only person on duty when I arrived, so we had to wait for a bit for someone to come and take over while she showed me to my lodgings.

- some gorgeous walking weather, and fantastic views from and of the hills in Tuscany. The forecast for the next five days calls for more of the same. Just as when I walked over the Great St Bernard Pass into Italy, going over the Cisa Pass in the Appenines into Tuscany has put me into a different region with weather patterns independent of what lies to the north of the mountain range.

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